What I wish I’d known before radiotherapy

Are you about to start radiotherapy as part of cancer treatment? Cancer treatment of any kind can be a daunting experience, so we’ve consulted the Shine Cancer Support hive mind to ask: what do you wish you’d known before you started radiotherapy? Read on for our members’ words of wisdom! 


1. I wish I’d… checked out the treatment centre

Any hospital appointment can be stressful – especially if, thanks to cancer, you find yourself there almost every other day. Not knowing where you’re going, or what you’ll find when you get there, can add to the anxiety. Many of our Shine members said that they had been offered tours of their radiotherapy centre before treatment which helped them to prepare both mentally and physically. If you haven’t been offered a tour, it’s always worth asking for one. Don’t be shy about explaining why you would like to see the treatment area beforehand – if you think it will make it easier for you to handle the treatment, it will also make it easier for the staff to administer it. Everyone wins!

A short tour will enable you to ask specific questions about your type of treatment. Sarah, who had head and neck radiotherapy, found having to wear a mask for her treatment the most difficult bit, but she learned that ‘they can adjust it if you need it’.

2. I wish I’d… known what to wear

What you are able to wear to radiotherapy will depend on which area of your body is being treated. It’s likely that you will need to remove some of your clothing, but you may want to dress in a way that means you have to take off as little as possible. And don’t take off too much! One of our Shine members learned the hard way that she didn’t need to remove her underwear to receive pelvic radiation…

close up photography of fawn pug covered with brown cloth

It can get chilly in the radiotherapy room…

Our Shine community agreed almost unanimously that it gets very cold in the treatment room! If you need to take off your jumper and you start to feel chilly, know that you can always ask for a blanket.

3. I wish I’d… known that it would take a while

It might not take very long for you to get ‘zapped’, but you will still find yourself hanging around for a while. Shine member Becky says that ‘although treatment only takes a couple of minutes, you can be lying on the hard bed for 30mins+ while they set it all up!’ Alison says that for her treatment, ‘the waiting is even longer than chemo.’

Waiting can be particularly difficult. Pauline says ‘I wish I’d been told to leave my dignity at the door!! A group of people will be chatting away like you’re not there (but actually lying half-naked) and then they’ll be getting their protractors out and doing sums!! (“87”, “2.1”, “84.9”).’

Finally, a tip for speeding things up if you’re having pelvic radiation: let it rip! One of our Shinies says that ‘any “air pockets” in your bowels can slow down the process!’

4. I wish I’d… applied cream more effectively

You will be advised to apply creams, such as aloe vera or E45, to the affected areas to help with radiation burns. Ask your team which topical lotions or ointments they would recommend.

clear glass container with coconut oil

Keep the cream handy

Emma, who had radiotherapy for breast cancer, says ‘I wish I’d been shown exactly where the treatment would hit. I was very good at using cream, etc. where I thought it was, but I didn’t know there was a part of my neck that would be treated, and this ended up with a horrible burn that is still scarred.’ One Shine member said that her radiotherapy treatment also burned the skin on the other side of her body, which she hadn’t expected. Check with your radiotherapist about where you should apply cream, and when.

Shine member Meera wishes that ‘they’d told me to use aloe vera on the skin before the burns started, not after.’

5. I wish I’d… been warned about the side effects

If you haven’t been told already, ask what types of side effects you can expect from radiotherapy treatment. Many people experience nausea and fatigue, for example, but you might experience other side effects depending on the location of your treatment.  Fiona, who had pelvic radiotherapy to treat bowel cancer, says ‘I would definitely say that you need to plan your life so you’re not far from the loo during treatment. Especially if you have a drive to work after being zapped each morning. I got to know the petrol station loos en route really well.’ Macmillan offers a free toilet card that might be helpful in situations where a public toilet isn’t available.

Georgina, who had head and neck radiotherapy, recommends stocking up on ice cream, or anything else that might be able to soothe a dry cough, or alleviate any swallowing difficulties. If you are having other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, at the same time as radiotherapy, there may be certain foods that you can’t eat. If you’re looking for something soothing to eat or drink, you might also want to ask your oncologist what they recommend.

Katherine says she wishes she’d known that ‘surgery scars tighten up after they are zapped.’ Ask your medical team if they have any suggestions for alleviating pain or discomfort from this, or from any other radiotherapy side effects.

Shine members also shared a number of long-term side effects that they hadn’t anticipated – for example, Pelvic Radiation Disease. After head and neck radiation, Shinies reported long-term effects on their eyes, swallowing muscles, and salivary glands. Ask your team whether they anticipate any long-term side effects, and what you – and they – might be able to do in order to minimise the risks.

6. I wish I’d… known how other people would react

If you’ve had any type of cancer, chances are you’ve experienced some strange reactions from friends, relatives, or the lady who lives down the road. One Shine member who received radiotherapy said that some people thought she was now radioactive, and ‘dangerous to be around’ during treatment. Others reported that people who hadn’t been through a cancer diagnosis didn’t seem to think that it was a big deal: ‘oh, it’s only radiotherapy.’

adult art conceptual dark

Other people’s reactions can be distressing

If someone you know is struggling to understand how radiotherapy treatment is affecting you, you could direct them to articles (such as this one!) that provide some background. Macmillan, Cancer Research UK, and Cancer.net have some helpful resources.

Alternatively, if you’d simply like a place to vent about the latest comment you’ve received, you can check out our private Shine Cancer Support group on Facebook and find lots of sympathetic ears!

Do you have any more tips for people about to undergo radiotherapy? Let us know in the comments! 

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